Theology Thursday: Confession

Bible and Hands

According to the well-known saying, “Confession is good for the soul.” In a sense this is true, for according to the Apostle John, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And as the proverb says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). Therefore, it’s not surprising that confession appears often in the Bible as the right response to our sins (Numbers 5:6-7; Psalm 51; Nehemiah 1; Daniel 9; Matthew 6:12; James 5:16).

What Confession Means

But what is confession? Confession refers to the acknowledgement of one’s sin to God, whether the sins be acts or dispositions of the heart, and whether they be sins of commission or omission. Confession arises from a right sense of oneself before God. Confession arises from a right recognition of one’s sin and its dishonor and rebellion against God.

It does not seek to excuse or justify sin, nor does it seek to shift blame towards others, but in humility confession acknowledges sin. Moreover, confession arises from a right recognition of God as both just and merciful: just in his judgment against our sin and merciful in his free forgiveness offered in Christ. Confession thus is an expression of a person’s faith in God’s mercy to forgive and cleanse because of Christ’s redemptive work. Confession is linked with repentance, inasmuch as it agrees with God’s stance against our sin and expresses one’s commitment to turn away from that sin in faith towards God.

Why Confession is Important

Why is confession so important? As stated above in 1 John 1:9, confession is the necessary condition to receive forgiveness and cleansing. Nevertheless, some people think of confession as a way for us to barter with God in order that by it we might lessen his punishment against us for our sin, as though confession makes satisfaction for our sin.

But this isn’t what confession means, nor is it comforting since we can never in this life confess all our sins perfectly and with pure contrition. Rather, God’s forgiveness is truly free and can in no way be earned or merited, no matter how many tears flow or how numerous our charitable acts may be. As the hymnwriter Augustus Toplady put it in his hymn “Rock of Ages." It goes as follows, “Not the labor of my hands / Can fulfill Thy law’s demands; / Could my zeal no respite know, / Could my tears forever flow, / All could never sin erase, / Thou must save and save by grace.” God’s grace is truly free, for it is based on the substitutionary death of Christ and nothing we do, including our confession, can add to its effectiveness before God. Our confession, therefore, doesn’t earn forgiveness from God but is the necessary response to the offer of the gospel. It is the necessary means by which we receive forgiveness based on Christ’s work for us.

How to Confess Well

How can we confess our sins well? First, be genuine in your confession. Don’t be hypocritical, confessing sins with the lips but not agreeing with the confession in your heart. Our body’s posture and our choice of words don’t matter nearly as much as the genuineness of our hearts in confession.

Second, regularly confess your sins to God. Make it a practice in your life to confess, both privately when you are alone and corporately in your church’s worship service.

Third, be specific when you confess. It is easy to be vague or general when we confess, but it is much better to be particular about the specific sins you have committed in order to be cleansed particularly of them.

Fourth, remember the gospel when you confess. Don’t be so introspective that you forget to look outside of yourself to God for his mercy in Christ. Indeed, none of us will enumerate all our sins, no matter how hard we try, for there are many sins of which we are unaware (Psalm 19:12). Confession should always include looking to God in remembrance of his mercy in Christ, with the full assurance that our sins are truly forgiven for the sake of Christ.

Fifth, confess your sins to others, either for the sake of reconciliation with them (Matthew 5:23-24) or for the sake of mutual edification (James 5:16). And when others confess their sins to you, remind them of the truth of the gospel.

In this sense, confession is truly good for the soul.

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